By Marty Russell
Dean Cobb had seen six or seven successful space shuttle launches in the two years he worked as a construction superintendent at Kennedy Space Center and had no reason to suspect that the Jan. 28, 1986, launch of Challenger would be any different.
“Nobody was nervous,” said Cobb, now 63 and a Potts Camp resident. “That day we were doing what everybody else was doing when there was a shuttle launch. We just stopped to watch and take pictures.”
He had seen numerous launches before, including a spectacular nighttime liftoff, from his vantage point as construction superintendent for a Birmingham firm building a towering hazardous payload servicing facility at Kennedy. The construction site was only about 2.5 miles from the refurbished pad used to launch Challenger that cold January morning.
“That was the first shot off that pad since they renovated it,” Cobb said.
Maybe because of that, he said Challenger’s flight path from the instant of launch seemed to veer from the normal path he had observed shuttles take at liftoff.
“It looked different, but maybe that’s because it went off a different pad,” Cobb said. “It didn’t look like it had before, but maybe it had to change direction to get on the right track.”
As usual, Cobb was photographing the launch when, 74 seconds into the flight, the shuttle’s main fuel tank exploded, ignited by hot exhaust escaping from a faulty joint in one of two solid-rocket boosters. His photographs show the now familiar twisting central plume with the two solid rockets shooting off in different directions just seconds after the explosion.
Unlike those who were watching at home on television, however, the shuttle was already almost 10 miles away from Cobb and his fellow workers when the accident occurred.
“It was quite a ways up in the air and quite a ways out when it happened,” he said. “As far as hearing a big explosion, we didn’t hear anything.”
But Cobb said he and his workers knew immediately what had happened.
“Everybody was just saddened,” he said.
Cobb said after a while his crews returned to work, but by the end of the day, most of the Cape had shut down and everyone had gone home to mourn the loss.